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New media

Free and meaningful

by Norbert Herrmann

In depth

Participants in a training course

Participants in a training course

Many organisations in developing countries could benefit from using new internet channels, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. It is quite easy to create your own website. Some internet platforms offer courses on website design – and their tips do not cost anything. By Norbert Herrmann

All over the world, people and organisations are using social media (for a definition, see the glossary). Some obstacles, however, are typical of developing countries. For instance, a lack of fast and affordable internet connections. Obviously, people need time, computers and be able to use them. Workshops in southern Africa have shown that some of the challenges can be overcome. Even people who are not internet-savvy can learn how to use online content management systems or blog systems in just a few hours and create their own website.

If an organisation wants to take advantage of these new opportunities, it must first figure out who its target audience will be. A wide range of different target groups can be relevant. For instance, Nqaba Ndlovu of South Africa’s Mpumalanga Youth Forum says that donors can find out on the Forum’s new website “who we are and what we are doing”.

For many civil society organisations, setting up a website is the first step out of informality. It forces them to define themselves and their organisational structure in writing. Merely preparing a website can thus already have positive effects.

Free online platforms such as wordpress.com and blogspot.com allow users to run their own websites. Doing so is quite easy. Most of these platforms even offer free learning portals that take users through the process step by step, allowing clients to design their sites according to their specific needs.

These platforms, moreover, offer digital services that are useful for non-governmental organisations in developing countries. To stay informed, for instance, people can receive short messages on their PCs and smart phones via RSS feeds and Twitter. It is also fairly easy to create group calendars for scheduling or to conduct simple online polls.

But technology is not everything. The most important thing is to present relevant content in an attractive way – for instance, by using meaningful photos.

Staying in touch

Social networks, such as Facebook, are also useful for an organisation’s in-house and external communication. Other providers of similar services are successful in various countries and regions – like Xing in Germany or Orkut in South America.

If widely used, social networks not only allow people to stay in touch, but even to reach agreements and provide target groups with information over long distances. Special fan and group pages on Facebook, for instance, can be tailor-made for a specific target group, offering the latest information and gathering opinions on current issues. Registered users, moreover, can raise issues themselves and even call for help.

Some platforms make it easy to share videos, photos and audio files. It is possible to publish entire photo albums and films. The best-known video platform is probably YouTube. Those who use it can disseminate videos without sending every­one a CD – an internet link will do. In areas with a lot of radio listeners, it makes sense to share audio files. Online platforms like Flickr and Picasa allow people to share high-resolution photos. Those who want to make their own websites more attractive, can do so by using such platforms. Maps (maps.google.com) and presentations (slideshare.com; issuu.com) can serve that purpose too.

Even without an internet connection, one can take advantage of some of the benefits social media offer. Text messages are an example, though they generally cost something. Bulk SMS services, such as Frontline SMS, allow users to simultaneously send identical text messages to multiple mobile telephone numbers. Twitter can similarly be used to send our text messages.

Small groups can even hold SMS conferences in which participants in various locations share crucial information. Bongani Madondo, editor-in-chief of an African youth magazine, organises such conferences because some of the people he has to be in touch with live way out in the countryside.

To make an organisation better known, it is a good idea to create an entry in Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. Whoever does so must bear in mind that the writing has to comply with Wikipedia’s rules. If too much marketing jargon is used, the entry may fast be deleted. Wikipedia spells out its guidelines concerning how to write articles on its website.

In any case, an organisation should carefully consider what its aims are before starting to blog, post and tweet. Firstly, some introspection is needed: which social media platforms does the organisation use already? And what about the target group? If there already is a clear trend, acknowledging it will make it easier to roll out new services. Inventory can help too. What content is readily available, and in which format? For instance, audio files from a community radio might be useful.

After considering these basic issues, it makes sense to tackle details: What platform does the organisation want to be on? Are there any inexpensive alternatives?

Often, it makes sense to test several options before settling for any given provider. In any case, organisations should make sure that their websites and their use of social media channels do not ­become too complex, so even staff with ­little experience can handle them. Problems typically occur when people who are ­familiar with these matters leave an organisation. Training sessions and teamwork will reduce dependency on a single administrator.

Social media pages must be maintained regularly. Visitors will lose interest, for instance, if the questions they post on a website’s fan page are not answered. And even after the digital world of social media has been entered, constant re-assessments of benefits are necessary. Ultimately, investments must pay. The blessings of social media usage need to be obvious and tangible, both in the eyes of the target group and the organisation itself.